Amazing Histories, February 1927: New Worlds and Human Failings

A World War I German U-boat is under attack. The assailants are not Allied craft, but a quartet of prehistoric reptiles: three emerge from the churning waters, while the fourth swoops down from the garish yellow sky. A beach and cliffs can be seen in the background, promising a new world of adventure for ay crew who survive. It was February 1927, and Amazing Stories had published its second issue of the year.

This month, the topic of Hugo Gernsback’s editorial is interplanetary travel. “We have conquered mechanical flight”, he remarks. “Now there remains flight out into space.” He goes on to discuss different potential means of space flight: the first is a device that negates gravitation (similar to Wells’ First Men in the Moon, although Gernsback does not make this connection) but as “such anti-gravitation machines must lie in the distant future” this is not a viable approach. The second is a vessel that is launched out of Earth’s atmosphere by a cannon, as portrayed in the works of Jules Verne, but points out that such a machine could not be navigated and would kill the crew upon launch. He concludes, correctly, that a rocket would be the best method, and cites the work of Robert H. Goddard, who had launched a liquid-fuelled rocket one month before Amazing Stories made its first debut.

But while futuristic space travel turns up in this issue of Amazing, the magazine starts by taking us on a trip into the past…

The Land that Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs (part 1 of 3)

The issue marks the Amazing Stories debut of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Land that Time Forgot begins with an American ocean liner being torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1916. The protagonist is amongst those aboard, and having a background in submarine construction, recognises the vessel as one that he had personally worked on: “this creature of my brain and hand had turned Frankenstein, bent on pursuing me to my death.”

Both the hero and his dog Nobbler manage to survive the attack, and soon meet another survivor: a young woman named Lys La Rue, who reaches the nearest shore with them. They are rescued by a passing tug, but – as fate would have it – this craft is attacked by the same U-boat. However, this time the crew manage to overpower the Germans and commandeer the submarine for themselves. They also take a German officer named Baron von Schoenvorts as prisoner-of-war – although the situation is complicated by the fact that Lys once loved the Baron.

It later transpires that a saboteur is aboard the sub, and the hero is pressured by his peers into suspecting Lys of aiding Baron von Schoenvorts. She is eventually found to have been framed by the true agent, and she vows never to forgive the protagonist for doubting her. This plot device – of the hero offending the heroine and being forced to win back her affection – is also found in Burroughs’ debut novel, A Princess of Mars.

Continuing on its way, the submarine reaches land. The hero sets off to explore and comes across the body of a hominid resembling “a cross between Pithecanthropus, the Java ape-man, and a daughter of the Piltdown race of ancient Sussex.” This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the creatures inhabiting the mysterious land:

All about us was a flora and fauna as strange and wonderful to us as might have been those upon a distant planet had we suddenly been miraculously transported through ether to an unknown world. Even the grass upon the nearer bank was unearthly—lush and high it grew, and each blade bore upon its tip a brilliant flower—violet or yellow or carmine or blue—making as gorgeous a sward as human imagination might conceive. But the life! It teemed. The tall, fernlike trees were alive with monkeys, snakes, and lizards. Huge insects hummed and buzzed hither and thither. Mighty forms could be seen moving upon the ground in the thick forest, while the bosom of the river wriggled with living things, and above flapped the wings of gigantic creatures such as we are taught have been extinct throughout countless ages.

The travellers tangle with a Plesiosaur, which they turn into steaks, and later an Allosaurus. They also meet a friendly Neanderthal named Ahm, who informs them that the land is called Caspak.

Burroughs originally wrote The Land that Time Forgot in 1917, with the story published in Blue Book the following year; as such it is full of anti-German sentiment, with the hero expressing hatred of “the Kaiser and his brood”. At one point the protagonist pleads that political differences between the English and Germans should be set aside in this antediluvian world, far from the theatre of war. Baron von Schoenvorts initially appears to go along with this idea, only to later betray the rest of the band. Burroughs also evokes the sinking of the Lusitania, which occurred in 1915 and would have been raw in the public memory at the time.

“On the Martian Way” by H. G. Bishop

The Columbia is a spacecraft originally built for hauling meat from Earth to Mars. However, faced with a declining Martian market for meat, the company in charge of the ship decided to repurpose it as a passenger craft.

The man tasked with leading the Columbia’s first launch in its new role is Winston, son of a distinguished physicist. But before the launch takes place, Winston receives word that his lover has jilted him. He drowns his sorrows in champagne, and as a result, makes a fatal error in his calculations. The Columbia ends up crashing into a comet, killing all on board.

Winston is incarcerated for his failure, but later pardoned. Upon being freed, he finds work as a radio operator on board another spaceship. But this craft likewise ends up in jeopardy due to mistaken calculations on land, and Winston decides to set things right – even if it involves sacrificing his life in the process…

A number of previous stories published in Amazing ended with disaster, but they tended to portray the disaster as arising directly from scientific or technological development, as though the characters are being punished for playing God. “On the Martian Way”, however, blames spacefaring disasters squarely on human error, offering a more open-minded approach to SF where tremendous technological advances are taken as a fact of life. Indeed, another reason why the story is unusual amongst Amazing’s early output is that it does not focus on a new invention or scientific discovery: it takes place in a setting where interplanetary travel has existed for untold generations, and where the mixing of Earthmen with Martians (who sport “big pearshaped heads, stocky chests and pipestem legs”) is so common that the narrative voice barely pauses for comment. This brief, now-forgotten story prefigures what science fiction would evolve into.

The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (part 3 of 3)

Lunar explorers Bedford and Cavor have become separated; the former finds their craft and makes it back to Earth, while the latter remains in the grip of the Selenites. After Bedford lands, a curious boy explores the vessel, and accidently launches it into space, never to be seen again – thereby leaving Cavor stranded on the Moon. And so ends The First Men in the Moon as a narrative, for the most part.

The remainder of the book is taken up by messages sent by Cavor to Earth by radio, detailing his conversations with the Selenite ruler. Freed from any requirement to plot, Wells indulges his imagination as he explores the workings of the Selenite society. The rand Lunar finds aspects of humanity fascinating, but is left bewildered when Cavor explains the concept of war. Cavor realises too late that, by giving away the darker side of homo sapiens, he has scuppered any hope of good relations between Earth and the Moon. The novel ends wth Cavor apparently being executed by the appalled Selenites before he can transmit a formula for Cavorite back home.

“New Stomachs for Old” by W. Alexander

In this first of a series of stories about one Dr. Wentworth, a man named Colonel Seymore is suffering from chronic stomach trouble which has left him with a foul temper. He decides to solve the problem by offering ten thousand dollars to a healthy young man willing to take part in a stomach transplant. The donor turns out to be a working-class Italian fellow, and the operation has an unforeseen side-effect. After obtaining is new stomach, courtesy of Dr. Wentworth, the snobbish Colonel finds that he no longer has a taste for the food served at his high-class club, and is instead drawn to the Italian meals on offer at a greasy coffee-house…

“New Stomachs for Old” was published at a time when organ transplants where only a hypothetical possibility. But as the story is written as a joke, with no intention of being a serious exploration of the theme, it stands up fairly well despite its dated premise.

“The Eleventh Hour” by William B. MacHarg and Edwin Balmer

Like “The Man Higher Up” from the December issue, this is a reprinted story about the exploits of the scientific detective Luther Trant. This time around Trant investigates the death of Walter Newberry, son of a retired missionary. At first it appears that Walter was murdered by his wife, Adele, but she pleads her innocence and insists that the death was a suicide, Walter having spent his last days in a state of apprehension, dreading some threat known only to him.

Using his skills as a detective, Trant comes to suspect four Chinese men of the murder. But, as Trant explains, “it is absolutely hopeless to expect a confession from a Chinaman; they are so accustomed to control the obvious signs of fear, guilt, the slightest trace or heat of emotion”.  And so the hero produces an instrument called a psychometer, which can register human emotion by reading “the involuntary reactions in the blood and glands which are common to all men alike—even to Chinamen!” Trant applies the psychometer to the four suspects and exposes their involvement with the crime, before explaining to the police that their motives are tied to Walter Newberry’s involvement with illegal immigration.

Although Gernsback would later try out a short-lived magazine devoted to stories of the Luther Trant type, Scientific Detective Monthly, it is not hard to see why the form failed to catch on. Detective stories where gadgets are used to solve the crimes, rather than the ingenious minds of sleuths, lack some of the romance that made the genre popular in the first place.

“The Thought Machine” by Ammianus Marcellinus

A scientist, Henry Smith, gets so immersed in his thinking that he struggles to spend time with his flapper girlfriend, Tina. In frustration, she suggests that he invents a thinking machine to do the work for him – and he is inspired to do just that. Smith sets about building a barn-sized machine designed to answer questions. Meanwhile, his relationship with Tina grows ever-frostier, and at one point his has himself temporarily committed to an asylum so as to get away from her.

Twenty years down the line, Smith finally completes his “Psychomach”. Costing five million dollars, comprising a hundred thousand parts, occupying an entire circus tent and capable of performing “nearly all the simpler operations of the human mind”, the machine is a technological marvel – and of no readily apparent use. Smith’s detractors argue that there is little point in spending five million dollars to construct something that everyone already has inside their own head.

But over time, various parties see value in the thinking machine. Screenwriters, tabloid editors and composers of popular music find that the Psychomach can do their jobs for them. Psychologists take great interest in the device, as it reaffirms their theories that the human mind is no more than a machine.

After Smith passes away, later generations continue his work, and perfect what would now be termed artificial intelligence; here, the story posits a rudimentary form of the technological singularity:

To dream a thing was to accomplish it, and if man did not know how, the machines found out. The new machines lived: they had a life of their own, they threw up their own questions like minds, and like minds answered them. The most difficult achievements seemed only a matter of a little time: the solution of the ultimate riddles of the universe were in view. The Psychomachs themselves told how to build better Psychomachs, and the building, under their guidance, and with the aid of the work-machines of the year 2,000, was a merely mechanical task that could have been accomplished by Tina. In the words of a contemporary, mankind had nothing to do but to sit under the palm trees and let progress unendingly roll on.

This seeming utopia comes at a cost. The entire human race is reduced to “things with the minds and characters of Tina, but without her energy”, unable to survive without the aid of their machines. Civilisation is all but wiped out by an unforeseen calamity, taking the machines with it. In the process, much of humanity’s knowledge is lost – including knowledge of exactly what cataclysm brought them down.

Like “On the Martian Way”, “The Thinking Machine” contrasts advanced technology with human failings, and even by the standards of Amazing‘s less optimistic stories it is notable in its sheer sourness. The story is narrated by a denizen of the post-apocalyptic Earth, whose tone is dripping with contempt for the era of Henry Smith and his invention. Smith, still in love with Tina, compares her to Einstein for hitting upon the idea of the thinking machine; the narrator responds in deeply sarcastic terms, as he demonstrates that Tina was at that time filling her Einsteinian brain with inane song lyrics. Later on, it is this simple-minded flapper who becomes a byword for humanity at its lowest.

The story has an intriguing religious subtext running through it. At the start, the narrator compares the Psychomach to the Biblical fruit of knowledge: “Of all the trees in the garden of science men may eat, but of this tree he shall not eat, or he shall surely die.” Tina, then, serves as a flapper incarnation of Eve, tempting her lover to eat of the forbidden fruit. At the very end the narrator presents religion as a possible means of rebuilding civilisation – albeit a religion that arises from a need for social control, rather than genuine spirituality: “A new civilisation may grow up, under the fostering care of our priesthood. And no doubt we shall have to invent some forms of religious mummery for the crowd”. All in all, a distinctly cynical tale.

The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Serviss (part 4 of 4)

Although the Ark weathers a storm that kills half of its animals, and later tangles with a sea serpent, this is on the whole a pretty laid-back conclusion to the novel. Geological pressure causes the Earth’s crust to rise while the water is absorbed, allowing the flood to subside. The inhabitants of the Ark, along with around three million people who had survived by living up in mountains, set about building a new world. Under the benevolent guidance of Cosmo Versál, who “taught his principals of eugenics”, they succeed in constructing a society “far superior, in every respect, to the old world that was drowned”.

Discussions

After a shot piece about a photograph of an exploding mushroom (which them magazine ties to Murray Leinster’s “The Red Dust”, printed in the previous issue) and an article about the son of H. G. Wells (“Often, when reading one of his novels, I feel certain that I know most of the characters, having met them in our house”) Amazing Stories #11 comes to its letters column.

Clifton Amesbury responds to an earlier letter regarding extraterrestrial germs, and suggests that if aliens arrived than humans would die from the invaders’ germs, rather than vice versa as in The War of the Worlds. H. W. Widner brings up the issue of scientific plausibility in SF, taking aim at the means of propulsion in A Columbus of Space; he also proposes some potential story ideas of his own, including one on what would later be known as genetic engineering: “Could we magnify human ova and sperm until it was possible to recognize, in each of the 12 cells, or the 24 cells in some stages, just what parts constitute future brains and future vital organs? It would be possible to breed a race of super-creatures”.

Bradford Butler offers something of an underhanded compliment, complaining that the magazine is so popular in his family that it “turns an otherwise amiable and attractive household into a an inferno if selfishness—son against father, daughter against mother… each seeking to pre-empt the copy of the magazine to learn how Gerald got out of the mountains of Mars or how Octavius saved the fair Olivia from the machinations of the super-heterodyne monster of the Moon”. The magazine was less popular in the home of H. Sartzmann, who reports that his wife was so disgusted by “The Telepathic Pick-Up” that she threw the issue away: “why not eliminate all gruesome stories?” asks Sartzmann, who also cites “The Talking Brain” as a story of this type. He goes on to object to tales in which the main character dies and their invention destroyed; Hugo Gernsback provides a curious explanation for this convention: “the author, somehow or other, knows that many people will believe the story is a fact and if the machine or invention were not destroyed, many simple-minded people would be misled.”

On a similar note, Ernest Bishop objects to the sad ending of A Columbus of Space, and calls for a sequel where Ala is saved from her apparent death. “Why must all stories end ‘right?’” asks Gernsback in response. “The modern school of fiction tries to approcimate life as it is, not the romantic life which we should like to have… Nearly all of the German films have unhappy endings”. Sam Fishman asks for a sequel to Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens”, and makes an intriguing offhand comment about “the maker of Frankenstein, whose name I forget”. Gernsback patiently explains that O’Brien is dead, and not in a position to write a sequel. Meanwhile, Oliver Herbert asks for Amazing to introduce a news section, prompting Gernsback to point him towards sister title Science and Invention.

Earl B. Brown offers a personal anecdote about a factory worker who “was slightly insane—not insanity as we think of it sometimes, but simply ‘queer’… His job was such that no thinking was required of him for his nine hours each day, and when outside the factory, what little thinking he did do was of a degraded and unclean type.” Brown praises Amazing Stories for saving its readership from this mental state. As a later generation of SF readers would say: fans are slans!

Doris V. Sutherland

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